Americans Waste Enough Food to Fill a 90,000-seat Football Stadium Every Day -- What Can We Do About It?
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I'm also a bit of a cheapskate (although, to be fair, I prefer the term "pragmatic")--and I love both preparing and eating food. I abhor the thought of food going to waste, both because it's anathema to my cheap, er, practical, soul and because it's a horrible fate for edibles that could otherwise help feed those who go without or just make something delicious. And after learning more about the resources that go into growing crops and raising livestock and the environmental impact of landfilling food, seeing those goods squandered frustrates me even more.
Despite all of my attention to the topic, I still waste food. Some items in our house go bad before my wife and I can use them (I'm looking right at you, cilantro bunch). Other foods get buried and forsaken in the fridge. And occasionally--with a dash of guilt--I toss something that just doesn't taste good. Okay, fine--it's more like a dollop than a dash.
Two years ago, when I was working at an anaerobic digestion company in Raleigh, North Carolina, an odd sight stopped me in my tracks as I walked across the parking lot one morning: an abandoned orange. In an otherwise immaculate strip of asphalt--because it was one of those places that contracted landscapers to leaf-blow the parking lot weekly--it was not hard to spot. I was transfixed. I returned to my car and got my camera to take pictures of this forsaken fruit. I couldn't imagine who would throw out what appeared to be a perfectly good orange. The exterior was a little dirty, but that's why oranges have skin. And I guessed that the spot of grime came courtesy of the asphalt. So what did I do? What would anyone who was blogging about food waste do? I ate it. And it was fine.
In addition to wondering who would discard a perfectly good orange, I couldn't imagine who would drop it onto the ground. Because, with the exception of cigarette butts, we just don't see people leave their trash behind as much these days as we did, say, twenty years ago. Collectively, we decided it was an unpleasant behavior and directly and indirectly set about to curtail it. Putting a name on the behavior--"littering"--helped. The Pennsylvania Resources Council created the "litterbug" idea in the early 1950s and allowed others to use it, and publicity campaigns followed.8 States made it worth our while to turn in bottles and cans, and eventually counties and municipalities made it much, much easier to recycle through curbside collection.
Today, seeing someone drop a can on the ground or even in the regular trash is rare, but few passersby would bat an eyelash if you threw away half of a banana. A common misconception is that food automatically returns to the soil. But although it does not seem as harmful as inorganic trash, food waste, in truth, is more damaging than most other litter. Organic materials (such as foods) are the ones that release greenhouse gases into the environment as they decompose.
Food waste isn't considered problematic because, for the most part, it isn't considered at all. It's easy to ignore because it's both common and customary. William Rathje, director of the erstwhile Garbage Project, a University of Arizona study that examined America's trash habits for more than thirty years, told me that food waste and its consequences go largely unnoticed. Why? Because it doesn't pile up like old newspapers; it just goes away, either down the disposal or into the trash. Yet, once you start looking for it, you can't miss the abandoned appetizers and squandered sandwiches.